Ethics Chief – The Function Counts
Alicia Clegg’s recent article in the Financial Times (Watching the executives, June 7, 2011) highlights corporate moves to improve compliance and image by hiring ethics officers. The issues are identical in non-profit organizations, despite the fact that the budget for such positions is almost always lacking. With due respect to the overall excellence and best efforts in the non-profit sector, culturally and organizationally rigorous integration of ethics policies and practices at all levels is often lacking as well.
Non-profit organizations should focus on the functions of this ethics chief position – perhaps distributing them in pieces around the organization if the position of an ethics chief is not financially possible or institutionally desirable. Even with an ethics chief, the key policies and processes must filter throughout the organization. Even without an ethics chief, organizations should be held, and hold themselves, to the same standards. A few key areas for focus include the following:
The PR: 20/20 Foresight Not Just Clean-up. As Ms. Clegg points out, often high profile, highly public appointments of an ethics chief (or even a revamping of internal ethics policies and practices) are designed to send a message that the organization’s ways have changed. Yes, it is important to acknowledge problems or failures and demonstrate accountability for addressing them. This is true for both substantive and PR reasons. However, increasingly the need is preventive rather than post-scandal. My theme of 20/20 foresight throughout these blogs is perhaps most important in this area. Think about what you want to be able to say you did today looking backwards in six months, two years, or five years should an ethical dilemma or drama arise.
The Scope: Law versus Practice. Regulation is the lowest common denominator. We all expect that at the very least even the smallest non-profit organizations comply with the law and seek outside expert advice as appropriate to confirm they are doing so. Therefore, key roles of ethics officers (or committees, discussion groups, or individuals with this responsibility) in addition to compliance should be to:
- engage in development of policies and practices above and beyond the law
- consider international best practice irrespective of the jurisdiction of organization and/or execution of mission – both for good ideas and to remain truly first in class by global standards
- implement fair and effective enforcement mechanisms. . .and then enforce
- ensure clear and regular communication on policies and practices, internally and externally
- make ethics reflection an institutional habit in decision-making and behaviour in all areas (See below.)
The Board of Directors’ Role. The board should be the ultimate ethics czar, individually and collectively. Irrespective of the size of the organization, the board should review regularly policies on everything from check signing and expense reimbursement to fund-raising practices and tax compliance. Ms. Clegg rightly asks, “What if senior management transgresses?” Here again, the board is responsible for CEO oversight, including the CEO’s policies and practices with senior management. Specialty organizations should also have chief specialty officers – or, again, at least allocate that function – to oversee, for example, medical ethics or elderly care or other highly specialized services.
The Subtleties. The safety is in the subtlety. An individual fund-raiser’s conversation with a donor could pressure or manipulate in ways never directly crossing specific guidelines or visible to any authority let alone an ethics chief. Cases of sexual harassment can turn on misplaced words that are hard to diagnose, prove, and therefore enforce. Organizations should remain creative and vigilant about supervising the subtlety at all levels: board, management team, employees, volunteers, and even outside service providers such as fund-raising agencies and data managers.
Codes of Ethics. Many excellent practices of non-profit organizations are not technically binding. I regularly recommend codes of ethics, in my own consulting work often custom-tailored to the organization. Organizations such as Independent Sector in the US, NCVO in the UK, and the Comite de la Charte in France offer excellent models. Alone these are not generally legally binding. These should be tracked through employment contracts or, at a minimum, tied to performance evaluation.
Decision-Making and Stickiness. Non-profit organizations should be particularly vigilant about the current and future (even unintended) ethical implications of decision-making (e.g. institutional matters such as expansion of mission or structural reform), including for the intended beneficiaries of their services. The organization’s ethical standards should become part of the day to day culture and way of working, including through management team members as models. In my experience, the stickiness of ethical oversight is as much about developing a reflex of asking the ethics questions at all levels of the organization as of having the concrete policies in place.
Ethics is not, and will never be, about a chief or army of officers, although ethics officers might be appropriate in certain cases in both the for-profit and non-profit contexts. Ethics is an institutional commitment and an individual commitment of every member of a non-profit organization’s community to be a chief. Incidentally, this includes donors…for a future blog. As always, I welcome your comments.
Copyright 2011 Susan Liautaud. All rights reserved
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